Bridging the industry: the Iconoclast examines the September Claims Conference of Northern California program and comments on its scope.
"The Iconoclast's contribution to the thing will be a question: Is adjusting a "professional vocation" or just a dead-end job? There is much to be said for both sides of that issue, and the attendees who absorb all that the speakers in the 16 sessions have to say are bound to come away from the conference with a good basis for counting themselves true professionals in the vocation of claim adjusting.
The same was true for the attendees at the 11th Annual America's Claims Event (ACE) held June 25-27 in Las Vegas, sponsored by Claims and National Underwriter Company. There the choices were between nearly 25 sessions, divided into three categories of management, process and policy, and technology, held over a three-day period. These sessions likewise ranged from claim auditing and training to coverage issues and fraud.
But how many of Northern California's claim personnel--or claim personnel from around the nation--will be in attendance at these and similar claim conferences? My guess is that out of the thousands of claim adjusters and representatives around the nation, less than two percent ever attend such educational seminars.
Professionalism, or Just a Job?
It's not a new question. It has been asked several times by this columnist, and it was also asked by Edward G. Robinson to Fred McMurray in the 1944 Paramount classic Billy Wilder movie, Double Indemnity. Remember those famous lines from Robinson, the crusty old claim manager to his young adjuster?
A desk job! Is that all you can see in it? lust a hard chair to park your pants on from nine to five? Just a pile of papers to shuffle around and sharp pencils and a scratch pad to make figures on, with maybe a little doodling on the side? That's not the way I see it, Walter. To me, a claimsman is a surgeon, and that desk is an operating table, and those pencils are scalpels and bond chisels. And those papers are not just the forms and statistics and claims for compensation. They're alive! They're packed with drama, with twisted hopes and crooked dreams. A claimsman, Walter, is a doctor and a bloodhound and a cop and a judge and a jury and a father confessor all in one.
I wonder how many of us in the claims industry continue to see it that way. Sure, the industry has "changed." The pile of papers may now be a computer screen full of data, and the pad and pencils a computer keyboard. The doodling may be humming while we wait for someone to answer their phone or for the voice mail to kick in so we can leave a call-back, but otherwise, is the game not the same? Are our claim files not alive with drama, with loss that has resulted in twisted hopes, the fires that destroy property, the injuries or fatalities that disrupt families and ruin lives, the crooked intent of those who try to see profit from their loss? The 21st Century adjuster must be as much a doctor, lawyer, cop, and bloodhound as in the 1940s--and when we really get to know our files, we still must be judge and jury and father confessors to our insureds and claimants.
Criteria of Professions
The responsibilities of professionalism require far greater dedication to the field than a job. A job is something one does to earn money. We call it "work," because it is often labor intensive and stressful, like a physical "workout." A professional career, on the other hand, is something we dedicate our lives to, and while it, too, can be stressful and hard work and full of heavy labor and long hours, if we have chosen the right vocation, it is also something we can enjoy doing as we earn money.
Many of us look at the money first, and the vocation second. "What does this job pay?" is more likely to be our first question, rather than, "Is this a field that I would enjoy, and in which I can advance in professional standing?" Some professions pay big; traditionally (but not always in the 21st Century) doctors and lawyers made big bucks and lived in nice homes and drove nice cars. But this is not true for many professions, such as nursing, social work, the clergy, engineers, or accountants; and it is increasing less so for physicians and attorneys. Satisfaction in the vocation must count as one of the perks.
Surprisingly, "business" is not a profession. Yes, there are professional businessmen and women, but business itself--even with graduate degrees in business administration--does not meet the criteria of true professionalism. Neither, in most cases, does the claim industry. What?!! But we're licensed, and are required to take continuing education courses, and we consider ourselves to be ethical. So what? In most places they license dogs, too, and it takes continuing education to just become a citizen these days, and, well, isn't everybody supposed to be ethical?
If ethics criteria have any basis in reality (and they certainly cover most true professions such as medicine, law, the clergy, etc.) where one cannot practice law without becoming a member of the Bar, practice medicine without a license that requires stiff examinations, be a Certified Public Accountant without passing the tests required for that designation, or seek ordination without the required qualifications of the religion, then business and adjusting don't qualify. While one may have a liberal arts degree and even a masters in some risk-related field, where is the professional organization that controls one's right to be an adjuster? Where is the searching examination that controls entry to the profession of adjusting beyond a few state-required license examinations, which are pretty simple in most cases? Where is the required Code of Ethics, the altruistic dedication, the mentoring that is more than just general supervision? Could the field of adjusting be a true profession? Certainly. Should it be a true profession? Definitely. Will it ever become a true profession, meeting all these requirements? Doubtful.
Trade, Art, and Craft
A real profession is also a trade, an art, and a craft. If the professional is to devote his or her life to the practice of a physician, accountant, lawyer or engineer--whatever the profession is--he or she must also have the tradesman or business savvy to make those skills provide a living. Physicians can't survive on donated chickens as perhaps they did a century ago; the modern world won't permit it. A profession is also an art and a craft, as much as one who makes a living selling drawings or hand-made baskets, biscuits, or bonnets. I recall one dentist who showed me the carving he had made out of a bar of soap--an artistic skill he was required to achieve in dental school if he was to learn how to fashion teeth for his patients. A surgeon must have the artistic skills of a sculptor, an attorney the same communication skills as an orator or a poet. An architect would not be worth much of he or she could not draw.
Professional adjusters, likewise, must have all these attributes. In addition to the necessary knowledge of tort and contract law, damage assessment, medicine and other fields, the claim professional must be able to communicate dearly, negotiate skillfully, and tend to "business" so that his or her career will be profitable. It's a tall order.
I was recently a guest at a local claim organization, geared more toward the property side than the liability claims arena. I was impressed with the professionalism of so many of the members I met. They tended to be older, at least middle aged with a few exceptions, and had worked in the claim industry for decades in several cases. They obviously loved what they were doing, and each expressed the role of this particular claim organization to present meaningful educational seminars. I'd venture to suggest that for many, each of the criteria of a profession--including the graduate and postgraduate college education--were met. So yes, adjusters can be true professionals, even if adjusting is not a real profession yet. Maybe professionalism is the bridge across this industry of ours.
Criteria of a Profession
A number of years ago this column cited the criteria of a profession as stated by Dr. Edwin S. Overman, retired president of the American Institute for Properly and Liability Underwriters. His essay was entitled The Professional Concept and Business Ethics, and was, at one time, required reading for CPCU students. They included:
* The significance of a broad educational background containing generalized knowledge;
* The importance of a highly unified body of specialized knowledge;
* The necessity of a carefully conceived Code of Personal Ethics;
* A need to strive for the ideal of altruistic attitude and behavior;
* The role of searching examinations to discern mastery in the specialized skills of the profession; and
* The role of the professional organization to control entry to that profession and to monitor the professional continuing adherence to the tenets of that profession.
To this the Iconoclast would add the need for careful mentoring of the new professional by his or her colleagues in the profession as he or she steps into the professional role.
Do you have a comment on this month's topic? The Iconoclast would like to hear from you. Contact us at Claims, 5081 Olympic Blvd., Erlanger, KY 41018 email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Brownlee, CPCU, is a former adjuster and risk manager, based in Atlanta, Ga. He now authors and edits claim-adjusting textbooks.